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Introduction to the General Epistles of the New Testament

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General Info

Toward the end of the protestant New Testament, we find the letters of James, 1st and 2nd Peter, 1st, 2nd and 3rd John, and Jude between the book of Hebrews and the Revelation.  Some scholars categorize Hebrews with this collection, while others group the book with Paul’s epistles.  These seven letters (or eight if we count Hebrews) are often referred to as the General Epistles.  We get this term from the early church Historian Eusebius (~265-340 AD), who first referred to these epistles as Catholic Letters (Ecclesiastical History 2.23-25), with the word “catholic” meaning “universal”.  The term is applied to the letters based upon their intended audience as well as their content.  Unlike the Pauline epistles, which were primarily directed toward specific persons or groups, these letters were addressed to general audiences (except for 2nd and 3rd John), and the character of their content is more universal in comparison with Paul’s letters.

Most of what we’ve written in our <Introduction to the Epistles of Paul> can also be applied to the General Epistles. Therefore, we’ll predominantly limit information on this page to that which is unique to the General Letters.

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Authors and Dates

In contrast to the Pauline Epistles, which are titled according to their recipients, the General Epistles are titled by their author.  James was the brother of the Lord Jesus and head of the Jerusalem church.  Peter and John were the two of the three apostles who were a part of Jesus’ inner circle (along with John's brother James).  Jude was Jesus’ youngest brother.  Both James and Jude were initially unbelievers who came to faith after the resurrection.  The author of Hebrews is unknown, with Paul, Barabbas, Apollos, Luke, and others suggested as possible writers.  See the Introductions to the individual books for more information.

James was one of the earliest of the NT books, probably written about 40-45 AD.  Peter and Jude wrote their epistles in the sixties, also the most likely time for the book of Hebrews.  John wrote his letters later, probably between the mid-eighties to mid-nineties.

Like the other books of the Bible, the above named authors were accepted almost unanimously until the past couple of centuries.  Some modern critics have argued that many of these books are pseudonymous writings (written by someone else using the name of an apostle or well known church dignitary).  See the Pauline Epistles Author for a brief discussion of the pseudonymity (identity) issue.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background to the Pauline Epistles and the introductions of the individual books for more information.

The Epistles of John were written much later than the other letters, toward the end of the first century. Communities were springing up throughout the Roman Empire, and the structure and organizations of the churches were somewhat loosely structured. Gnosticism was still in its early stage, but further developed than during the writings of Paul and the others. New heresies which questioned the deity of Christ were also slipping into the churches. Christianity had, for the most part, split and was operating independently from Judaism. It was up to John, as the church elder and the last surviving Apostle, to instruct, encourage, and strengthen the next generation of believers.

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Timeline

This timeline includes the General Epistles and some key events during the first century.  Unlike modern publications, books and letters in Biblical times were not dated.  We can however, establish the approximate dates from the Book of Acts and from extra-biblical sources (see the Timeline for the Book of Acts for historical notations).  All dates are AD unless noted.

~ 6-4 BC Birth of Jesus
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem); 3000 Saved at Peter’s Sermon
~ 40-45 Epistle of James written, probably in Jerusalem
49 Emperor Claudius expels Jews from Rome
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem (presided over by James)
54 Emperor Claudius dies; Jews allowed to return to Rome
~ 54 Peter arrives in Rome
54-68 Reign of Roman Emperor Nero
~ 60-63 Peter’s 1st Epistle written from Rome
~ 62 James (the brother of Jesus and writer of the book of James) stoned to death in Jerusalem
~ 63-66 Epistle of Jude written
64 Fire at Rome, Nero blames Christians
~ 64-65 Persecution of Christians under Nero
~ 64-67 Peter’s 2nd Epistle written from Rome; Peter martyred in Rome
66-70 Jewish uprising against Roman rule
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
~ 80 - 90 Gospel of John Written
81 - 96 The Reign of Roman Emperor Domitian
~ 85-95 1st, 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John written from Ephesus
~ 95-96 John writes the Book of Revelation from Isle of Patmos
~ 100 Death of the Apostle John

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

See the Pauline Epistles Themes and the individual books for more information.  We’ll give only a brief description of the primary purposes and themes here.

Hebrews was written to demonstrate the superiority of Christ and to warn Jewish believers against leaving their new found faith and reverting back to the Old Covenant.  Peter wrote his first letter to encourage those suffering under persecution.  His second letter, like Jude, warns readers to hold to true doctrine in coping with false teachers, and contains a keen eschatological sense.  James wrote to admonish and encourage believers to put their faith into practice.  John wrote about love, unity, ethics and morality, false teachers and true doctrine.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The suggestions regarding literary type, OT allusions, determining historical background and specific circumstances, and interpreting various themes in context that we offered in the Pauline Epistles Interpretation Hints can also be applied to the General Epistles.

Most of Paul’s letters are marked by a well defined logical structure and progression of thought.  Other than Hebrews and the shorter letters, the General Epistles typically do not follow any distinctive patterns.  James writes in a similar style to the OT proverbial wisdom literature, covering a series of short topics with no overall unifying theme.  On the other hand, John skips around from topic to topic in his First Epistle, returning back repeatedly to the same subjects in a somewhat circular pattern.  Perhaps the easiest means of following an author’s thought pattern is to outline the entire letter, since having a good overall understanding of the book will assist us considerably in interpreting the individual parts.  We are providing a detailed outline of each book in the corresponding individual introduction.

Throughout this article, we’ve repeatedly referred back to our Introduction to the Pauline Epistles.  With the except of John’s letters, which were written two to three decades later, Paul and the other writers faced similar, but not entirely the same political and historical backgrounds and challenges throughout their ministries.  Thus, just as we have four supporting Gospels, the General Epistles offer us additional distinctive, but substantiating apostolic perspectives on the depth and fullness of God’s inspired revelation.

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